Anchorage’s largest shelter is at capacity. Mayor Bronson wants to add 160 more beds.

Rows of cots are organized on the floor of an arena.
The Sullivan Arena, Anchorage’s low-barrier emergency winter shelter, can sleep up to 200 people under an Anchorage Assembly policy. Mayor Dave Bronson is proposing raising the number of beds to 360. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Update, Tuesday night:

The Anchorage Assembly took no action at its meeting Tuesday on Mayor Dave Bronson’s request to expand Sullivan Arena shelter capacity. Read more.

Original story:

Wintry weather has maxed out emergency cold weather shelter capacity in Anchorage. On Monday, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson proposed raising bed capacity at the municipally owned Sullivan Arena from 200 to 360. The Anchorage Assembly may consider the measure at its meeting Tuesday night. 

The Sullivan shelter has been at capacity since late November. Shelter managers are directing people who can’t get a bed to a spartan warming space in the arena that’s open 24 hours a day. They can get a snack, a hot drink and charge a phone. Physically being there also serves as a waitlist for a bed. 

Sullivan Arena shelter manager William Scott said 108 people used the space at some point on Monday – that’s not necessarily at the same time. But Scott said when outdoor temperatures bottomed out recently, that figure peaked at 177. Scott said he counted 130 people in the warming space at one point. 

Rob Seay, who manages shelters for the municipality, said people can and do stay at the warming space overnight, though it’s not supposed to be for sleeping and there are no cots. 

“Technically, it’s not supposed to be sleeping quarters, by code,” Seay said. “But you know, I mean, whether that’s enforced all the time, that’s another story.”  

People staying at the shelter need to check in twice a day to keep their cot. If they don’t, it will go to someone in the warming space.

A woman works at a laptop computer.
Amanda Swenson works at the front desk at the Sullivan Arena shelter in Anchorage on Nov. 22, 2022. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The Sullivan Arena reopened in October as an emergency cold weather shelter. Alexis Johnson, the housing and homelessness coordinator for the muni, said the 200 beds filled up the night of Nov. 21. 

The muni has contracts for emergency cold weather shelters at multiple facilities around the city that, with the exception of one being transitioned back to a hotel, are also full. But the Sullivan has the highest capacity and lowest barriers for entry. 

City officials first opened the Sullivan as a shelter when pandemic restrictions forced existing shelters to cut capacity in 2020. Mayor Dave Bronson closed it this summer and directed its users to the campground at Centennial Park. 

The mayor planned to build a new, mass shelter and navigation center before winter. But the plan faltered, and city officials decided to reopen the Sullivan. 

The Anchorage Assembly set the current bed capacity at 200, half the pandemic levels. Members said they prefer having multiple smaller shelters to mass shelters, and thought it would be easier to manage. 

Felix Rivera chairs the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. He called the mayor’s proposal to raise the Sullivan Arena’s bed capacity an “11th hour surprise.” He wants to find out how the administration settled on the 360-bed figure, what other shelter locations were considered and if the administration can do more to reduce impacts in the area.

“The last thing that I want us to do as a policy of this city is to continue to burden one neighborhood with so much of our population experiencing homelessness and so much of the issues that surround that,” Rivera said. 

The Anchorage Daily News has reported that the Sullivan’s neighbors have been dealing with a range of issues they attribute to people drawn to the shelter. Everything from graffiti and littering to people stepping into traffic, trespassing, open drug use and assaults. At least one woman was found dead. 

An open drawer is full of contraband.
People staying at the Sullivan Arena can’t come in with alcohol, drugs or weapons. Security Guard Andy Viray will hold potential weapons like these for safekeeping. People with drugs and alcohol must discard them on entry or be denied entry. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly recently committed $400,000 for security and clean-up services around the Sullivan. 

Rivera also said the Bronson administration did not address funding for the proposal to increase capacity. The muni has Henning Inc. under contract to manage the Sullivan. 

Henning has specialists on site that help connect its users to social services and more stable housing. 

“We are working with every individual to get them on to the max amount of benefits that they qualify for and get them into the housing pipeline,” said Johnson,  the muni’s housing lead. “So eventually they can be sustainably housed and not living in a shelter. I think that’s the ultimate goal.”

Meanwhile, nonprofits the muni is working with are wrapping up the purchase of two more hotels to convert to housing, and eyeing a third. The Rasmuson Foundation is leading that effort, with $11.9 million of American Rescue Plan Act money the mayor and Assembly steered its way in July. Michelle Brown with foundation says these three hotels plus conversions earlier this year will lead to a total of 332 new housing units in less than a year.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption misstated that security guards at the Sullivan Arena will store people’s alcohol and drugs — prohibited in the shelter — and return them later. Those substances must be discarded on entry, or their owner will be turned away.

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Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.

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